The Fiasco of the 386 Generation Andrei Lankov
The recent presidential elections in Korea have often described as a fiasco of the “386 generation.” Indeed, the 386 generation has been a popular catchphrase since the mid-1990s and for good reason. The rise and supposed fall of the 386 generation is probably the central feature of the Korean social and political history of the last two decades. Only time will tell, but it seems that their impact on Korean history will be similar to the affect the baby boomers have had on US history.
Of course, the Korean 386ers are younger than the baby boomers. The word itself was first coined merely 15 years ago. It hinted at what was then the newest PC microprocessor, the 386 model (soon to be followed by the 486s and then by Pentiums). It implied that those were people in their thirties (hence “3”), who went to college in the 1980s (hence “8”), and were born in the 1960s (hence “6”). Nowadays, a decade later, a better name would be “486ers,” of course, but the old name stuck.
The 386 generation was distinct in many ways. To start with, they were the first generation of Koreans to grow up in a relatively affluent society. Some 386ers experienced a touch of poverty in their childhood, but they did not know the real destitution which was so familiar to their parents.
For them, the Korean War is nothing but a distant memory, recalled largely through their parents’ stories and official anti‑communist propaganda, still common in their high school days (and increasingly seen as untrustworthy). They did not share that profound sense of insecurity which became a lasting legacy of the war. The generation of the 1930s never forgot that only an American military intervention saved them in 1950, so the parents of the 386ers never overestimated Korea’s significance in the world. The 386ers look at things quite differently.
Their parents, born in poverty, were ready to accept a dictatorship as long as it delivered economic growth. The older generation was proud to move from bicycles to motorbikes, and then to cars, and they were happy when it became affordable to vacation on Jeju Island and then even sometimes overseas. For the 386ers all these things just came naturally. In their childhood and youth, the 386ers lived through the most remarkable economic success story of the 20th century and hardly even noticed it.
In the 1980s this group, then in their 20s, started showing a keen interest in politics. Most were influenced by student activism: the 386ers were also the first generation in Korean history to have easy access to college-level education. They were not ready to accept the tacit deal military dictators made with the 368ers’ parents: authoritarianism in exchange for economic growth. The 386ers wanted complete democracy. Indeed they played a major (perhaps, even decisive) role in the peaceful uprising which in 1987 ended decades of dictatorial rule.
For a developing country, Korea in the 1980s had a remarkably equal distribution of wealth, but this fact was not appreciated (or even acknowledged) by the 386 generation. For them, the gap between the rich and poor appeared yawning, so something had to be done about it.
In their university years many of them considered the solutions which were proposed by Marxism, usually interpreted in a rather straightforward Leninist manner. Back in the 1980s involvement with the Marxist underground became a part of life in Korean universities.
Apart from Leninism, “correct” answers to these painful questions were provided by nationalism. So, a mixture of the nationalism and leftism, typical of the North Korean official ideology for a long time already, began to gain popularity in South Korea as well.
The students saw their country as an authoritarian and repressive dictatorship. Since Korea was a US ally, they blamed all problems, real and imagined, on the government and, of course, on the “US imperialists” who were seen as major backers of the dictatorships. In more extreme, but by no means exceptional cases, some developed strong pro-Pyongyang sympathies.
For a while in the early 1990s it appeared as if the 386 generation had lost its inclination for political activity. A handful of political activists continued the “struggle,” but after the collapse of dictatorships it was not clear who should be the “enemy” in a new environment. A vast majority of the 386ers quit their activism and just continued with their jobs.
However, by the mid-1990s it became clear that things were not that simple. The 386ers had brought the ideas of their youth, albeit in diluted form, into mainstream politics. Few of them dreamed about a communist revolution any more, and many (but not all) fantasies about North Korea died out. However, they still wanted a generous welfare state, usually without understanding that such a state is very expensive to taxpayers. They also wanted to distance their country from the US, assuming that Korea had nothing to be afraid of any more.
Thus, from the mid-1990s Korean politics acquired a generational dimension: those who were below 40 or 45 differed from their elders in being left-leaning, nationalist, and, to a degree, anti-American.
Kim Dae-jung was elected President in 1997 with strong support of the 386ers, but it was the victory of President Roh in 2002 which was seen as their triumph. Indeed, for the first time South Korea, long a stronghold of radical anticommunism, acquired a leftist government.
However, the triumph proved to be short-lived. Roh came to power amid great expectations, but it soon became clear that life under the 386ers’ regime was not improving. On the contrary, there were some negative changes, like growth in youth unemployment and economic slowdown. It is not clear to what extent the government was responsible for the problems, but the Korean public definitely put the blame on the administration, increasingly seen as inept and weak. So, the 2007 elections ended in a landslide victory of the right-wing Grand National Party.
To the great surprise of the 386ers, neither their younger siblings nor their growing children embraced their worldview. The campus politics—to an extent it still exists—moved rightward, and nowadays young Koreans are as likely to vote for the right-wing parties as their grandparents. For them, the Marxist worldview of the 386 generation appears ridiculously anachronistic, and if they still care about fighting dictatorships (few do), their most likely target is Kim’s dictatorship in the North, long a darling of 386er activists.
So, there is much talk about the collapse of the 386 generation. Well, such talk is definitely premature. The 386ers are now actually in their prime, and in subsequent decades they will have a number of opportunities to make a comeback. After all, their opponents expect that the new administration will deliver a second edition of the 1960s’ “economic miracle.” For many reasons, this is not going to happen, so disappointment might herald the political revival of the 386 generation. The great political pendulum goes from right to left and then back.
Andrei Lankov, “Fiasco of 386 Generation,” The Korea Times, (May 2, 2008), http:// www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/special/2008/04/180_18529.html.